Managing Up

The Hard Thing About Disagree and Commit

Feature image for The Hard Thing About Disagree and Commit

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a fairly famous thing that he calls “disagree and commit.” In his 2016 shareholders letter, Bezos wrote:

This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

The interesting thing about this is that Bezos inverts the typical ‘disagree and commit’ scenario that most of us experience in the workplace. If you think about it, ‘disagree and commit’ is rare in the situations that he describes: as a manager dealing with a proposal from a subordinate, or from a subordinate attempting to get buy-in from her peers and her boss. In those situations, the technique is novel and designed to speed up decision-making, and Bezos’s point in his letter was to encourage its broader use within Amazon.

But that doesn’t hide the fact that Bezos describes two fairly niche scenarios. Most of the time, us middle managers have to deal with something much more mundane: we find ourselves committing to something handed to us from above, something we vehemently disagree with.

This is exactly the scenario that Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth writes about in How Not to Disagree:

Imagine a simple scenario. Your manager is proposing changes to your roadmap. Those changes would negate months of work by your team. You lead the team and don't agree with the new direction. Following a robust discussion your manager makes the change over your objections. How do you proceed?

This is a common occurrence in business. It is also grounds for one of the most common mistakes I see.

In this scenario, many leaders sell out their management and rally the team. They say management sucks, but don't worry, we will make progress in spite of them. This approach is staggeringly effective.

Until it isn't.

Boz is right, and I think he’s probably understating the problem. In many startups, managers have more context than their peers in larger companies, and would often have strong opinions on the broader company strategy in ways that big company employees would not. In my previous role I was not only involved in the company’s product roadmap, I also knew the competitive landscape we were operating in — including the problems that our salespeople faced every day in the field. This additional context led to all sorts of nuanced disagreement when it came to company direction — to the point where my boss dreaded pitching several ideas to me.

In fairness, I never said or implied that ‘we would make progress in spite of company leadership’ to my people; in fact, I executed every strategic direction that was asked of me, no matter how much I disagreed with it.

But my failing was in some ways just as bad: I grouched about my disagreements with my boss … to my entire team.

Disagreeing Badly, Committing Badly

Grouching publicly is something I regard as my biggest flaw as manager. If I could go back in time to change something about my previous tenure, this is the one thing that I would do over.

How did I realise I had gone too far? Well, not too long ago I met up with an old subordinate of mine, and he told me that he was now dealing directly with my ex-boss … and found him eminently reasonable.

“You know,” this person told me, “The impression that I got from you was that (our boss) was really bad. But he listens, and he can be persuaded.”

It was in that instant that I knew that I had overreached. I realised that I had inadvertently painted a negative picture of my previous boss, one that wasn’t fair to him at all; my grouching meant that I had failed in aligning my team with broader company objectives.

I vowed to never repeat this again.

I don’t mean to say that this would be easy, however. Boz points out that you might have had months of work invested in some decision that is now overturned. In my situation, the difficult thing for me was that the objections I raised in response to many of my boss’s proposals were valid, real issues! When things blew up, I took a small amount of pleasure in saying (or at least thinking!) “I told you so.” The schadenfreude was real.

As my boss continued to push his plans through — sometimes against the protests of my subordinates — I began to feel increasingly frustrated. The real challenge here isn’t committing to something that you ‘disagree’ with. The real challenge is to commit to a company strategy that you feel — deep in your bones — is the wrong path to take.

So what do you do when you’re in such a situation?

Disagreeing and Committing … The Right Way

Boz describes a scenario where a manager doesn't truly commit to a boss’s decision, and instead creates an ‘us against them’ scenario. This didn't happen with me, because my actions spoke louder than my words: I went all in on whatever direction my boss pointed me towards even as I complained bitterly about it.

This was one thing that I did right, I think, and it’s something that I won’t change if I were to go back to redo things. But it's worth asking if this is possible for you. If it isn’t, is it because:

  1. You no longer trust your company’s leadership?
  2. Your subordinates disagree more strongly than you do, and you’d have a riot on your hands if you proceed to disagree and commit?
  3. You’re emotionally done with the constant shifts in company direction?

There is a point at which the only solution to an inability to ‘disagree and commit’ is  to quit the company and leave. As a manager, you exercise significant leverage on the output of your team. Not being able to ‘disagree and commit’ with your boss’s direction is a failure in company dynamics, and it likely means that you are now at odds with the broader organisational direction.

To put this another way, staying in your company when you feel this way is a disservice to yourself, to your company, and to the subordinates who might not share your views. My personal view is that a manager should leave if he or she is no longer effective; not being able to ‘disagree and commit’ with your boss is one sure sign of ineffectiveness.

But let’s say that you can disagree and commit. Let’s say that you are able to swallow the bitter pill and commit totally to whatever it is your boss has in mind. How might you do that without making my mistakes?

On reflection, I think I would do two things differently if I were allowed a do-over. (This is also what I intend to do going forward in my next role, and for the rest of my career, so there).

The first thing I would do differently is to express my disagreement but limit it to a sentence or less. In some cases — ones where my subordinates are not likely to know or care about my disagreements — I would leave all mentions of my opinion out of communications to the team. Like most such things this sounds easy but probably isn’t; as I’ve mentioned earlier, trying to commit on something you feel deep in your bones to be wrong is difficult.

(There’s also the added complication of wanting to be open with my subordinates; I’ve covered this elsewhere but note that it might’ve been a factor in my behaviour).

The second thing I would do differently is to ask for my boss’s reasoning in all such cases. Most startups are busy places and we weren’t any different — sometimes my boss would push things through and forget to explain his mental calculus to me. This made it a lot more difficult to communicate the full context of his decision-making to the rest of my team; that I was running the engineering from Vietnam and he was in Singapore didn’t help things one bit.

I think what’s interesting here is that this topic really highlights how management matters in the small — you can disagree and commit, but it’s the nuances of how you do so that ultimately matter. As Boz puts it, only once you commit can you truly lead; to which I would add: only once you disagree properly can you truly say you’ve done right by your leaders.

Listen to the related podcast episode here, or subscribe to the MFS Newsletter for updates.